Bonnefoux rehearsing dancers Melissa Anduiza and David Morse. Photo by Jeff Cravotta, Courtesy Charlotte Ballet.

Southern Charm: At Charlotte Ballet, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Offers Dancers Serious Stage Time

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Pointe.

Take a look at Charlotte Ballet's repertoire, and it's clear it's a company fueled by innovative contemporary works yet rich in ballet pedigree. Led by former New York City Ballet stars Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, the company has challenged its home audience with Dwight Rhoden's civil-rights themed Sit In Stand Out and delighted attendees at the Chautauqua Institution, its summer home in upstate New York, with Sasha Janes' inventive and sophisticated Chaconne.


Founded in 1970 as North Carolina Dance Theatre, the company relocated from Winston-Salem to Charlotte in 1990. Bonnefoux took over, in 1996, with his wife McBride as associate artistic director. Both left positions in the ballet department at Indiana University to inherit a financially struggling company that hadn't yet solidified its place in Charlotte. But they were able to quickly turn the company around with a vision focused on a wide-ranging repertoire.

“We were not there to say 'We come from this specific ballet tradition and that is all you will see,' " says Bonnefoux. “I wanted to find the new talent in America and bring it to Charlotte. You need exciting choreographers to attract exciting dancers and vice versa."

Bonnefoux hired both. Over the past 19 years, the non-ranked company has built a consistent roster of dancers to perform new contemporary ballets by the likes of Alonzo King, Jirí Bubenícek and resident choreographer Rhoden; modern classics from Balanchine, Forsythe, Kylián and Tharp; and full-length story ballets.

Bonnefoux speaks with dancers. Photo by Jeff Cravotta, Courtesy Charlotte Ballet.

Aside from the repertoire, many dancers come for the chance to learn from the legendary McBride, who acts as a mentor and coach, as well as a master teacher in the company's affiliated school. Bonnefoux, too, “is very selfless, understanding and genuine," says 10-year Charlotte Ballet dancer Alessandra James. “Yet he commands so much respect. His stories about his career and insight into ballets are absolutely priceless."

James is the poster child for the type of dancer Bonnefoux hires: not just an excellent performer and technician, but someone who's eager to grow. “If a dancer is not working to improve and stays the same from year to year," says Bonnefoux, “it is not good for the company. There is no routine here."

Bonnefoux has also been supportive of his dancers as choreographers, including former member Janes, who shares the role of associate artistic director with McBride.

In addition to their annual five-program season and occasional regional touring, Charlotte Ballet's dancers get extra weeks of work at Chautauqua, where they present new ballets and preview their upcoming home season. Bonnefoux has headed Chautauqua's summer dance program since 1983, and the relationship led to Charlotte Ballet's summer residency officially starting in 2001.

Beginning this season, a partnership with South Carolina's Gaillard Center in Charleston will add more performances—including major productions like The Nutcracker—and educational programming. The goal is to help build an audience in a community which recently lost its lone professional ballet company, Charleston Ballet Theatre.

Another change came in 2014 when the company rebranded to Charlotte Ballet. Bonnefoux and McBride wanted to better define the company as a ballet troupe with Charlotte as its home, and it has already led to increased ticket sales. The key element in the marketing strategy? Using the dancers' faces and stories in advertisements to personalize the company/dancegoer relationship.

For Bonnefoux, that face also needs to be a diversified one. “You don't have that many African American dancers coming to auditions, and that is disappointing," he says. But the company has been proactive via an ongoing program with Dance Theatre of Harlem. For the past three years, Charlotte Ballet II has taken two students from DTH's school into its ranks. The company has also been cultivating homegrown talent through Reach, its community outreach scholarship program for young beginners.

With its new performance partnership and diversity initiatives, the freshly rebranded company has become an increasingly desirable destination. “The dancers that come here know the repertory is not easy," says Bonnefoux. “It is going to challenge, excite and transform them."

Charlotte Ballet at a Glance

  • Number of dancers: 20
  • Length of contract: 36 weeks
  • Starting salary: $615 per week
  • Performances per year: 60

Audition Advice: Charlotte Ballet holds auditions from January to March and accepts videos through April. Dancers making it to later rounds are asked to learn a solo from the company's repertoire. "I want everything in a dancer," says Bonnefoux. "They need to have good technique and be strong enough to be good partners. I look for dancers who really know what épaulment and port de bras are, who fit with the company and will communicate well with the audience and their fellow dancers."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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